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Monks behaving badly? Not on reel

Horror films are an easy bet for box office success in Thailand, except perhaps when your lead character is a misbehaving monk.

Film producer Prachya Pinkaew, the man behind the runaway martial arts flick Ong Bak, found out the hard way when censors at Thailand's Ministry of Culture slapped a ban on his film, Arbat, last week (Oct 11).

The Thai term, arbat, means a breach of monastic rules. The original film centres on a young man who becomes intimate with a village girl after being forced by his father to become a monk. Spooky scenes then unfold as the novice monk gets payback for his infringements.

The objectionable scenes, according to local reports, include that of a novice monk kissing a girl as well as a monk drinking alcohol and touching the head of the Buddha statue. In Thai culture, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body.

Director Kanittha Kwunyoo told the Bangkok Post that the film was "meant to reflect that sins, merit or karma have been part of us all along. We just have to learn and live with them".

The censors felt instead that it might "create unnecessary conflicts in society" by putting monks in a bad light.

What probably escaped their consideration was that those scenes were just a vanilla depiction of recent monastic transgressions in the country.

In June 2014, an elderly monk - disrobed after his arrest - was sentenced to five and a half years' jail for raping a teenage girl in his Bangkok temple. There have been cases of monks getting high on drugs, while the scandal of "Louis Vuitton monk" Nenkham Chattigo continues to stain public memory.

The baby-faced monk, whose real name is Wirapol Sukphol, caused a furore when a video of him wearing aviator shades, sitting in a private jet next to a  Louis Vuitton bag, made its way onto the Internet. He was last reported by exiled Thai journalist Jom Petchpradub to be starting a new life in the United States.

Financial considerations probably prompted Arbat's makers to remove the offensive portions from the film. Out went the kissing scene, which Mr Prachya described as the "turning point of the movie". The title was also changed from Arbat to Arpat through a tweak of a Thai consonant, which essentially rendered the word meaningless.

A disclaimer was even added at the start of the film stressing that it was a work of fiction. In return, the censors allowed it to be screened in the 18+ category.

Officials in the Buddhist majority country have long been known to be sensitive to the portrayal of monks in Thai films.

A 2007 movie about thieves disguising themselves as monks and committing a series of worldly indiscretions was also shut out of cinemas. After an age-based film classification was introduced in the country, the film was finally released in 2010 in the 18+ category with warning messages.

Mr Kittisak Suwannabhokin, who heads the Thai Film Foundation, thinks this censorship is an archaic millstone in an otherwise dynamic Thai film industry.

"We have the right to watch whatever we choose, not whatever some old people decide we should see," he tells The Straits Times.

In a market saturated with horror films, the premise of the original Arbat was not very "marketable", says Mr Kittisak. Ironically, the furore may have created more interest in the film than if it had been untouched.

tanhy@sph.com.sg